Empty Stomachs, Clenched Fists: How Palestinians Are Fighting Israel's Unaccountable Prison System

Thaer Halahleh, a resident of the Palestinian city of Hebron, is a father. But his 2-year-old daughter Lamar only knows him through photographs.

In the middle of the night on June 26, 2010, 50 Israeli soldiers raided Halahleh’s home in the occupied West Bank. After forcefully knocking down his door and demanding that the women and children in his family step outside while they ransacked his home, the Israeli authorities arrested him. The Israeli military gave his family no reason for his arrest other than the claim that Halahleh was a “threat to the public.” He was taken from his family that night, and transferred to the Etzion Detention Center in Israel, where he was placed in “administrative detention.”

Almost two years later, 33-year-old Halahleh is still in prison. His family has only been allowed to visit him once.

Israeli policy toward Palestinian prisoners is now facing unprecedented scrutiny, as Halahleh and a host of other prisoners continue an open-ended hunger strike focused on ending the practice of administrative detention and other harsh prison practices. The hunger strike has galvanized Palestinian society, leading to weekly protests outside Israeli prison walls. The hope is that Israeli authorities will be forced to negotiate with the hunger strikers to meet their demands.

Currently, 322 Palestinian prisoners are being held under administrative detention, a military process Israeli authorities use to arrest and detain Palestinians without trial or evidence. Many of them have been in prison for years. None of them have had their cases heard in court. Most, like Halahleh, were violently arrested and taken away in the middle of the night, and to this day don’t know the exact charges they face aside from vague accusations. To the Israeli authorities, a “security threat” can be someone who is a semi-active member of a political organization, or someone who frequents nonviolent demonstrations.

Although an administrative detention order can technically be given for a maximum of six months, it can be renewed indefinitely. Since Thaer Halahleh was arrested almost two years ago, his detention order has been renewed eight times. Halahleh is now fighting back.

On February 28, Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab, another administrative detainee, began an open-ended hunger strike. In addition to administrative detention, they were also protesting the punitive measures the Israeli authorities impose on prisoners, such as solitary confinement and restrictions on family visits. In March, both men had to be transferred to Israel’s Ramleh Medical Prison. Despite being in critical medical condition, neither patient has been permitted to see a doctor independent from the medical prison.

Over two months later, Halahleh and Diab are still on strike, nourishing themselves through salted water alone. On May 7, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected appeals by Halahleh and Diab against their administrative detention orders. Still, more than 2,500 other prisoners have joined the hunger strike in solidarity--more than half of all Palestinian prisoners.

“I am a man who loves life, and I want to live in dignity,” Thaer Hahlahleh testified to a small group of advocates who attended the court hearing to appeal his detention order. “No human should accept being in jail for one hour without any charge or reason.”

Hahlahleh's and Diab's plights are by no means unique. In Palestine, the injustice surrounding incarceration has personally touched almost every member of the population. Since Israel began its occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in 1967, Israel has imprisoned 650,000 Palestinians—around 20 percent of the population, and 40 percent of all males. Despite the Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly stating that transferring detainees to the occupying power’s territory is illegal, all 4,500 Palestinian prisoners are held in Israeli jails.

In some ways, the occupation regime in Palestine has been used to further deny prisoners their rights. Palestinians living under occupation are not allowed the right to freely move between cities and cannot visit Israel without permission from the Israeli military. This approval process can take weeks—and most applications are rejected. For prisoners, family members that try to visit are often denied permits. Furthermore, Palestinian lawyers are unable to see their clients, leaving most Palestinian prisoners without any legal representation.

The Palestinians who do receive trials are tried in military courts, not civil courts. Israeli military tribunals are presided over by three judges appointed by the Israeli military. Some have no legal training or background. These military tribunals have a 99.7 percent conviction rate. In other words, although they may go through all of the motions of a trial, the verdict has already been decided.

In the past, these policies have been protested in the streets as parts of larger, popular demonstrations against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Prisoners’ rights were part of a string of grievances ranging from checkpoints and restrictions on movement to illegal settlement building and home demolitions. Despite the continued presence of protests and resistance being an integral part of Palestinian culture, this daunting host of issues had begun to produce a malaise towards the goal of ending what seems to be a perpetual occupation.

Now, inspired by Khader Adnan’s 66-day hunger strike beginning in December, and later Hana Al Shalabi’s 43-day strike during the month of February, resistance has reached new heights of courage and desperation. Rather than protesting the mass of grievances Palestinians face under occupation, activists’ focus has been reoriented toward prisoners. In what is now referred to as the “War of Empty Stomachs,” prisoners are using the last tools of resistance still available to them to fight for their own—and Palestine’s—basic human dignity.

Israel has a choice to make. As in the cases of Khader Adnan and Hana Al Shalabi, Israel can release prisoners as their health deteriorates. However, releasing two prisoners and releasing 2,500 prisoners are very different things—and would represent a huge defeat for Israel. The other option is to let the strikers die in prison, and face the inevitable consequence of massive popular demonstrations of outrage throughout the occupied territories. In either instance, the strikers will experience a victory: more prisoners will be released, or Israel will encounter a public relations disaster as the hunger strikers’ deaths further focus the international spotlight on administrative detention and other policies.

Most Palestinian hunger strikers—particularly those being held on charges of administrative detention—were never significant threats to the state of Israel during their civilian lives. However, now that they are behind bars they have organized into a very real threat to the state of Israel. At long last, mass resistance is drawing international attention and outrage to Israel's harsh and unaccountable prison system.


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